AUGUST usually represents the nadir of interest in education. But since George Bush announced Sept. 27 and 28 as the dates for his education summit - bringing the governors of the 50 states together to discuss schools - it isn't too soon to think what might come of the meeting. The meeting itself is unprecedented. It's only the third time in US history all the governors have met with the president; the first on education. (The two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin, held summits on conservation and the Depression). Mr. Bush is to be commended on this effort to be an ``education president.'' Governors are key since states are where the action in schools are.
Moreover, the summit couldn't come at a better time. The sad fact is, school reform is petering out. It's remarkable that it's lasted this long. But what expert Denis Doyle calls ``the Paul Revere phase'' of reform is over - crying out the problems. The public now knows what 17-year-olds don't. We know the best US students don't measure up to the best in other nations, at least in math and science. We know urban schools are a mess.
What Bush can offer education reform is a jump-start. It would be too bad if the summit is just a lot of symbolic pomp and circumstance. Post-industrial American society needs some serious leadership for its ailing education system.
A few leadership areas the Bush team might focus on:
Federal funding. With the exception of more Head Start funds, the issue isn't more money, but money spent better. Consider an overhaul of the rigid rules tied to federal funds. A number of states have had their greatest reform successes when letting districts figure how best to spend for their kids. Apply the same principal to the states. Let them work together or alone to come up with their own plans. Increase block grants. Oversight would be critical.
Restructuring. Think about restructuring huge 3,000- to 5,000-student schools. They are wastelands. With schools, small is beautiful. A school of 700 students can battle destructive peer values, and establish the community and ethos of work and sharing that urban kids need to experience. Look into ``schools within schools'' and school ``choice.''
Parents. Without concerned parents, forget it. The summit needs to focus on them.
Leadership. Appoint someone with state reform experience to focus solely on what emerges from the summit. Possibly a governor. Possibly former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
So far, George Bush's ``education presidency'' has been without substance. He can begin to change that this coming school year.